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Govt rejects Opposition bid for regular public health briefings

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A state Opposition request for regular public health briefings from senior bureaucrats in the lead-up to the March election has been knocked back, with the Marshall Government declaring it a waste of public servants’ time.

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Labor leader Peter Malinauskas and his health spokesman Chris Picton have been provided occasional access to chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier on request to Health Minister Stephen Wade, but had sought regular weekly briefings given the looming March 19 poll – moving to daily briefings once the government moves into caretaker mode.

A January 17 email from Malinauskas’s chief of staff John Bistrovic to Wade’s office says the Labor leader is “eager to set up a regular weekly meeting with the Chief Public Health Officer or one of the three deputy Chief Public Health Officers”.

“Given the upcoming election, it is important that the Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Health are fully briefed and across the ongoing response to the pandemic,” he wrote in the email, seen by InDaily.

“As per previous briefings Peter and the Shadow Minister for Health are happy to work around the diary of Professor Spurrier or her deputies and meet via Microsoft Teams or any other location that is deemed suitable.”

But in a response delivered yesterday, Wade’s chief of staff Greg Westenberg argues: “Weekly briefings for the Opposition would be an unreasonable diversion of the time of officers who are fully engaged in the pandemic response.”

“As the election approaches, the usual caretaker processes will apply,” he said.

A version of the caretaker provisions framework provided by the Government to InDaily stipulates that “public servants must at all times preserve the traditional principle of the political impartiality of the public service as well as the confidentiality of government business matters”.

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“Access to public servants by MPs should normally proceed through application to the relevant minister,” it states.

“During the caretaker period, as at other times, public servants should not discuss the affairs of the government with a shadow minister or opposition member unless permitted to do so by the relevant minister after consultation with the Premier.

“Public servants must advise their minister when such a discussion is to take place, and party leaders may have other MPs or their staff present at the discussions.”

It says such “discussions between public servants and the opposition would normally be limited to the machinery of government and administration [and] may include the administrative and technical practicalities involved in implementing policies proposed by the opposition”.

“Public officials are not authorised to discuss government policies or to give opinions on matters of a party political nature,” it says.

“Should the opposition representatives raise matters which, in the judgement of an official, seeks information on government policies or expressions of opinion on alternative policies, the official should suggest that the representative raise the matter with the minister.”

In another section, the document states that “public servants must not be seen to be supporting particular issues or parties during the election campaign” and that “proper lines of supervision and support for public servants working in ministers’ offices are essential to avoid potential conflicts of duty”.

“For this reason, it may be appropriate for normal reporting relationships of public servants to ministers and ministerial staff to be changed by chief executives during the caretaker period, following consultation with the relevant minister,” it says.

But Malinauskas argues that caretaker conventions do not make specific provisions for elections held during public health or other emergencies.

“It’s almost without precedent that we have an election campaign at the same time as a pandemic,” he told reporters today.

“I think South Australians want to see a good public policy debate, and that needs to be based on public health information – and Steven Marshall’s Government is making sure that only one side of the political spectrum gets that information and the other one doesn’t,” he said.

“It’s poor practice and poor form.”

The document says there are “established practices associated with the conventions that are aimed at protecting the political neutrality of the public service and ensuring public resources are not used to advantage a political party”.

“The conventions are not legally binding, nor are they hard-and-fast rules – individual cases require judgement and common sense,” it says.

“While DPC can provide information and advice to agencies, responsibility for observing the conventions ultimately rests with agency chief executives and with the Premier and ministers.”

The Premier today said the Government had been “providing comprehensive briefings right the way through” the pandemic, with Labor asked health officials “questions about their policies” at the most recent meeting.

“They got that advice, they ignored that advice and went out and announced their policy anyway,” Marshall said.

He said health officials had given evidence in recent parliamentary committees including the Budget and Finance and COVID Response committee, “so there’s plenty of opportunities” for MPs to ask them questions.

“The Opposition has had access to briefings and hardly ever called upon it, so it’s interesting they’d be calling upon it now as we go into caretaker [mode],” the Premier said.

He said he did not “want to be drawn” on how often briefings should be provided under caretaker conventions, but said: “I don’t think there’s any chance of a daily briefing.”

Malinauskas said today he had broadly “provided bipartisan support to the Government [on COVID restrictions] to ensure that we maintain public confidence in the public health advice and the processes” but that “a lot of South Australians are becoming concerned that Steven Marshall appears to be playing politics with the pandemic”.

“They are more interested in spin of the health advice rather than the public release of it,” he said.

“I can’t see any good reason why either the chief public health officer or any of her deputies shouldn’t be able to provide a [regular] briefing to the Opposition around what the public health advice is, particularly in the lead-up to the state election.”

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